Habits as the Muscle Memory of Our Worship

by Justin Jackson March 24, 2022

It’s been said before, “Humans are creatures of habit.” The problem is that we rarely appreciate just how serious our habits are. Generally speaking, we think of a habit as something altogether benign—just something we sort of do on a whim. “It’s not that I’m an angry person. I just fly off the handle sometimes.” “I’m not idolizing social media; but it is the reason I haven’t had time to pray today.” The truth is that our habits can tell us much more about ourselves if we would only stop long enough to assess them. There’s more to our temper tantrums, Twitter blasts, porn addictions, envy-driven competitions, and even our bad habit of division than meets the eye. In reality, our habits reveal what we worship with great precision. Habits are the muscle memory of our worship. They are the natural reflexes that reveal the object(s) of a person’s love and devotion. According to Paul in Galatians 5:16-25, our habitual “walk” is symptomatic of life live either in the flesh or in the Spirit.

Small Steps in the Same Direction

While the word “habit” is not found in many places in the New Testament (NT), the concept is there nevertheless. For example, Paul often talks about life as a “walk” in one direction or another (Eph. 5:2, 15; Col. 2:6; 4:5; 1 Thess. 4:1). In Galatians 5, Paul uses the metaphor by telling his readers that they must “walk by the Spirit” if they are to “not gratify the desires of the flesh” (5:16). The “walk” is a comprehensive metaphor for our choices, desires, affections, words, actions, and—yes—our habits. Everything we do in life is reflective of our “walk” and the internal orientation of our hearts. In this light, we should think of our habits as small steps that are heading the same direction. As will be seen, our habits are just the fruits that reveal what soil our roots are buried in.

Our Habits are the Battleground of Opposing Desires

According to Paul, there is an invisible war being raged inside each of God’s people. Our habits (the “walk”) are the battleground upon which the opponents fight for victory. On the one side, we have the desires of the Spirit—the will of God. On the other side, stands the desires of the flesh—all the lusty, temptations of immediate gratification. Paul says that these two sets of desires are antagonistic against each other, and neither can abide the other’s gratification “for these are opposed to each other” (Gal. 5:16-17). The moment you begin following the one, the other is there to challenge your direction. There you are, with your Bible open, ready for a deep dive into the word of God; but then comes a notification across your iPhone offering you the latest dirt on some politician or celebrity and along with it a temptation to waste the hour scrolling through the gossip. The flesh’s desires will not stand idly by while you, are trying to follow the Spirit.

The good news is that neither will the Spirit stand aside when the flesh casts its lures. If you are a Christian, the Spirit’s pull can be felt as he confronts the dark desires of your temptation. It’s that moment of grace and realization that what you are about to do is neither for your good or God’s glory. The Spirit’s desires things that are at odds with the flesh, and he will sanctify his people from fleshly the desires. The flesh is energized by angry outburst, gossip sessions, and Instagram reels, but the Spirit desires things that will display love for both God and others. Paul promises that if we walk by the Spirit, then we will not gratify flesh. In assessing our habits, then, it’s worth asking: “Who gets what he wants from my habits?” The Spirit? Or the flesh?

Legalistic Resolutions Cannot Change Habits

In Galatians 5:18, Paul makes an important qualification. That is, living by the Spirit and living under law are not the same thing. He writes, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” It is important to remember that Paul is writing to the Galatians because they were being drawn away by Judaizers who mandated obedience to the old covenant laws, like circumcision, in order to attain righteousness. They believed the law “could give life,” when, in reality, it “imprisons everything under sin” (Gal. 3:21-22). They initially began walking in the Spirit, but now, they wrongly believe that perfection can be attained by fleshly efforts (Gal. 3:3). And so, by telling them to “walk by the Spirit,” Paul is not saying that the Galatians must try harder. In fact, it is trying harder that has gotten them into trouble in the first place. They have forgotten just how much they depend upon the Spirit for any kind good fruit to grow in their lives.

The same applies to us. While we may not be tempted toward the same “law” the Galatians were trying to live out, we have our own form of Galatian legalism. That is, we try to complete our spiritual sanctification with our own willpower, our resolution. “This year, I am not going to lose my temper as much.” “In the New Year, I will worry less.” Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that resolutions are bad in-and-of themselves. It’s simply that they are not enough.

Resolutions tend to focus on actions (what I am going to do or not do). However, our actions are anchored in the deep waters of the heart’s longings. Resolutions tend to remain at the surface level of deeds, while spiritual change requires going much deeper to the ocean floor of one’s desires. Without changing our sinful desires, even our “good” resolutions may be nothing more than veiled idolatry. A resolution to get healthier, may be a cloaked to desire to look more appealing to others. A resolution to read more, may be a subtle bid to look smarter than others. As Paul warned the Galatians, no matter how rigid or strict of a discipline one imposes, only in walking by the Spirit do we confront flesh-based habits.

Our Habits Indicate our Trajectory

Everyone is on a trajectory. C. S. Lewis once wrote,

And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself.

In other words, we are all heading in one direction or another, and eventually, we will reach our telos. Habits are powerful compasses that reveal the heart’s internal orientation—whether to the kingdom or away from the kingdom. In Galatians 5, Paul highlights the urgency to consider one’s life. He not only tracks the fruits of sinful habits to their source in the flesh, he also connects how these habits reveal one’s relationship with the future kingdom of God—namely, those who live in the flesh will not inherit the kingdom (Gal. 5:21).

That said, we are in desperate need for the Spirit to change our heart’s orientation. Without roots buried deep in the Spirit’s desires, bearing good fruit is impossible (5:22). The Spirit desires for us to feast at the Kingdom’s table where we will find satisfaction. Yet, if it were up to us, we would keep eating the stale Lays’ chips of pornography, gossip, power mongering, and alcoholism, and yet never be filled. We need the Spirit to pull the greasy chips out of our hands and to lead us to the festal table.

Crucifying Habits

Following Christ is not easy. Both Jesus and Paul compare it with the pain of crucifixion (Matt. 16:24 and Gal. 5:24). The call to follow Christ is nothing short of a call to mortification. Difficult as this may sound, death to self and sin is what is required if we are to live the life God desires. At the moment, it always sounds a lot easier than it really is. “I’m can put down my phone any time.” But it is rarely—if ever—that easy. Spiritual things tend not to happen “cold turkey.” In reality, even the best spiritual habits will feel like a daily crucifixion of our fleshly desires. By God’s grace, however, we have a High Priest who knows our struggle. He knows we are weak. He knows just how often we crumple under the cross of self-mortification. And yet, he is willing to help! Because this is true, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).

Keeping in Step with the Spirit

“If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25). The goal of addressing our habits is, ultimately, that we will have habits that are in step with the Spirit. We are always marching to the beat of someone’s drum, either the drum of the flesh or the Spirit. Everything we do works to shape and conform us more to one or the other’s beat. As God’s people, we must humble ourselves to the Spirit’s leading and walk in harmony with his rhythm.